Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.
The graphic designer Chris Capuozzo used photographs of Yonkers taken by his wife during the 1980s in order to achieve verisimilitude for the HBO show’s sets.
A few months ago, Chris Capuozzo was admiring his freshly scrawled graffiti on the walls of the Schlobohm Houses in Yonkers, remembering the nighttime raids he and his friends made in the 1980s on the NYC Transit Yards to tag subway trains. This time, there were no police to look out for since the work was totally legal, which in some ways only made him more nervous.
Capuozzo, a graphic designer, had been hired by the Emmy-winning art director Adam Scher to paint graffiti on the set of Show Me a Hero, the HBO six-part miniseries written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and directed by Paul Haggis, based on the 1999 book of the same name by Lisa Belkin. A former graffiti artist from Staten Island, Capuozzo is married to the photographer Denise Capuozzo, a Yonkers native. After hiring Capuozzo, Scher learned that Denise had a horde of photographs of the area in the late ‘80s, when the events in the series took place, which became invaluable for the show’s clothing and set designers in attempting to replicate the era.
At the time, Denise Capuozzo’s motivation wasn’t to document the turmoil in the region, but simply to celebrate the reality of everyday life in Yonkers. Her images included a portrait series of high-school students, as well as street shots of residents going about their lives. Working with the spontaneity of a journalist, she captured the styles and fashions of the time. And several decades later, Scher and his team of designers pored over the archive while attempting to recreate the look and feel of 1980s Yonkers: Achieving verisimilitude was essential to the show’s creators.
Show Me a Hero documents the effort to desegregate public housing in Yonkers during the late ‘80s, when a federal judge ordered Mayor Nick Wasicsko to build new low-income townhouses in primarily middle-class neighborhoods, rather than perpetuate further inequality by placing them in areas already blighted by poverty.
Replicating the graffiti of 1980s Yonkers was essential to the authenticity of the show’s sets. The original direction given to the set designers, in Chris Capuozzo’s words, was to have “giant multi-colored murals lining every available wall”—only that kind of street art didn’t exist in Yonkers at the time. Having studied Denise’s photos, he realized he needed to gather a group of individuals who were involved in graffiti in the area during that era, as well as assemble artists of various degrees of expertise—skilled graffiti artists, younger beginners, and amateurs. He also made use of building-maintenance staff who, when they attempted to clean the paint, often left smeared stains or mismatched color patches on the walls, and added some “wild style” lettering interspersed with other less ostentatious tags.
During the late ‘70s, a handful of notable graffiti crews started in Yonkers—including Blade, Seen, Futura, and Dondi—but since they painted trains, their names and work extended well beyond the area. By the late ‘80s, Capuozzo says, things had changed. Tagging trains was out, and “street bombing” was in, with graffiti cropping up on highways leading in and out of the boroughs. So most of the graffiti writers Capuozzo needed to channel for Show Me a Hero were lesser-known locals.
To balance authenticity and stagecraft, Capuozzo looked at graffiti done in the Bronx in the 1980s, but the work was much too good for the novice artists he needed to emulate. “In effect, I was doing ‘bad’ copies of those writers’ styles,” he says. But his commitment demonstrates how seriously producers and designers take historical accuracy in period shows. Capuozzo’s graffiti isn’t present in more than a handful of scenes, but it helps set a foundation for the drama that makes the events portrayed even more compelling.
When production began, all the buildings that comprise the Schlobohm Houses (where the original story took place) were clean. Within weeks the locale was transported back in time, which prompted mixed reviews from residents. “Some folks didn’t appreciate seeing the walls get trashed,” Capuozzo says. But some didn’t mind the flashback. One resident passed by as they were painting, offered Capuozzo a fist bump, and shouted “Oh YEAH!” It expressed, the designer says, the energy that graffiti “had, and still has, the power to evoke.”
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.